Monday, 16 November 2009

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

A reader (Paul) asked me about the title of this novel, which got me thinking how we choose what to call our books. Mine has long since developed from the original short story it began life as, and so 'Old Enough' no longer does it justice. I always presumed something would just come along, that it would find its own name. Once this didn’t happen, I sat down, trawled the story’s themes, making a long list of words that became possible titles. The terrible ones leapt straight out, leaving a few to play about with.

So, how important are titles? Are the names of the books you love wonderful because of the stories within them, or do they draw a reader to them in the first place? Well, a little of both, I imagine. How much time should you spend choosing a title; surely an editor will change it anyway, and it’s just about the story. True to an extent, but why risk sinking deeper in the slush pile because your novel’s moniker is a stinker?

I think a title should at least pique some interest. It should provoke a response – from a prospective agent, publisher or reader. It needs to capture the story’s essence, resonating a little more as each chapter is read.

Titles are a personal matter, and people become very defensive of them. As a fiction editor, I’ve often loved a story, but suggested to its writer a, what I believe to be, stronger title, only for them to dig their heels in, intransigent to the end. Some people regard one-word titles as dull or languid, but that really depends on the word, and the story it describes. Whereas I’d caution greatly showing your WIP to every friend and family member, asking people who love books what they think of your title can be helpful. But as with all these things, it’s better to learn to trust you own judgement. (I've also been searching for the title of my short story collection, which was even harder.)

And, so, I’ve at least got my working title now. It was fun finding it, but back to the hard slog of the story. I’m strangely defensive about it, so it won’t appear here for a while.

So, how do you do it? Do you agonise ad infinitum, of have a more blithe approach? Can you think of other titles for your favourite novels, or does this destroy them in your mind? What's the worst title of a novel you know?

7 comments:

SueG said...

Interesting and important question. I think titles are very important. I think they are the key to the door of the room that contains the novel, so to speak. My 1st novel's title was obvious from the start. This new one has been a real struggle. I had a title I loved but had to, in the end, admit it was too awkward. But now I'm even happier with the new title. Giving a title is like naming a child - no wonder we writers take it so personally when editors change them, even if the change is for the better.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Sue. Having no children, I've only got around to naming pets!

Douglas Bruton said...

Once you have given your work a title it is hard to change it. Like changing the name of a child you have watched grow to a toddler.

But names are important. Talked to a publisher/editor recently and she confessed that she quite often changes the title of a work she is editing into something more appealing to the market.

My children's book, 'The Chess Piece Magician' could have been changed, except that they liked it. It has been 'The Chess Piece Magician' for 13 plus years (in a drawer!) so I am kinda glad they thought it marketable as is.

The title to short stories is something you know is right when you have it... it feels right... it is both hook and tag. I've tried changing a title that I loved, just so I could enter the story some place else (sort of in disguise) but I usually hate the substitute title.

Yep... good discussion topic.

Ta

Paul Lamb said...

I don't judge a book by its title. Otherwise I never would have read Moby Dick, which is probably my favorite book. The Ghost Writer (by Philip Roth) has a vague, not-catchy title, yet it is a book I've read close to twenty times.

The title of my WIP is The Sleep of Reason. It's part of a quotation that captions a rather famous work of art. The novel is about, in part, famous works of art (and the strange things they can do to people), but I suspect an editor will find my title too "high brow" or obscure and want to change it. As you said, it may be an improvement, but the title is what I've had in mind since the start and it works for me.

Captcha word: bunks. I hope that isn't a reflection on my comment.

Elena said...

I am terribly hopeless when it comes to titles. I usually come up with something awful and then get someone cleverer than me to rename it. Even when I used to write music, the songs would be called "Untitled 1" and "Untitled 2". Yikes!

When I'm choosing books, the title draws me in, but only as part of the entire cover. I guess I think very highly of a good title, and would rather have no title than a bad one.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for stopping by, Elena.

I agree, no title better than a bad one, but linking to Sue's point above, it would be cruel not to name a child just cos you couldn't find one you liked! 'Untitled 1, I told you to tidy your room.' Ha.

Elena said...

Well Tom, I was actually going to name my kids Boy 1, Girl 1, etc. But you're right - I suppose that would be quite cruel...